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Tobiason and Reckhow Direct Statewide Probe into Lead in School Drinking Water

John Tobiason

John Tobiason

David Reckhow

David Reckhow

Professors John E. Tobiason and David A. Reckhow of the UMass Civil and Environmental Engineering Department were the co-principal investigators/directors of the UMass Amherst implementation for the MassDEP-funded “Massachusetts Assistance Program for Lead in School Drinking Water” (see report), which was covered extensively on May 3 through May 5 by three long feature articles in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. See Gazette, 5/3/17, Gazette, 5/4/17, and Gazette 5/5/17. Tobiason also did a presentation on the report’s findings at the Annual Water Quality Symposium of the New England Water Works Association on May 10.

The voluntary lead program, coordinated by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, took water samples from 818 schools in 153 communities between April of 2016 and February of 2017 and issued its final report in early May. Schools were flagged when at least one fixture surpassed federal “action levels,” which are 15 parts per billion for lead and 1.3 parts per million for copper. Statewide, 72 percent of school buildings had at least one fixture that tested high for lead or copper. The program also found that 21 out of 25 participating Hampshire County schools have high levels of lead in at least one fixture The Gazette story of May 4 quoted Reckhow as saying that efforts to remove lead and other dangerous materials from school water sources should be done at the state or federal level, not the local level, where wealth and resources vary widely.

As the story by Naila Moreira began, “The very schools we depend on to educate our children could be making them less smart. Drinking water in schools across Massachusetts, including here in the Pioneer Valley, has been found to contain lead significantly exceeding safety standards. Lead exposure, experts say, can cause lower IQ, increased attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and other cognitive problems.”

The lead contamination was discovered through the $2.75-million program directed by Tobiason and Reckhow, which was initiated in response to the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan.

According to Moreira’s story, Reckhow noted that the Massachusetts testing program did not include funding to investigate current blood lead levels in school-aged kids statewide, which means the health impact of lead from school drinking water and other sources is still unknown. Reckhow also said the high lead levels in school taps have him “concerned.” He noted, however, that some of the highest levels could be in error, as the data have not yet been vetted. But, for the highest-level lead in taps, he said flushing is unlikely to suffice.

Relying exclusively on local communities to address lead will not be enough, said Reckhow. “If you leave it up to local control, the wealthy communities will solve the problem, and the poor communities won’t be able to,” he said. “I think we need a broader program to do this, and that means state level, federal level.”
The Gazette stories of May 3 and May 5 featured input from Tobiason. Writer Jack Suntrup’s Gazette article of May 3 estimated that about $2.1 million in funding was used for the first round of testing, leaving $600,000 in leftover funds for a second round. Tobiason estimated the money would be enough to test between 100 and 200 more schools.

Overall, Tobiason concluded that the state testing program has offered valuable insights into the status of lead in school drinking water, despite the program’s voluntary nature. “If you know about it, then you can take some actions to do something about it,” Tobiason said.
“Many of the schools that didn’t take part in recent voluntary state tests for lead and copper in water say they already have programs in place to detect potential threats to student health,” as Emily Cutts wrote in her May 5 Gazette story. “When they find a problem, district officials say they solve it either by removing the problem water source, turning it off, or replacing entire sets of fixtures.”

Cutts said that, in the Valley, some officials at those districts that responded to questions from the Gazette say they already had testing programs in place. For example, Cutts reported that results for testing in South Hadley’s schools came in just before the state’s program began in 2016.

According to Tobiason, who reviewed the results at the Gazette’s request, the South Hadley testing showed that the drinking water sources in all the district’s schools were well below the action levels. (May 2017)